When the coronavirus pandemic hit the scene in the United States in early 2020, many were completely unfamiliar with the virus, and few had experienced a real public health crisis—certainly not one of this scale. Seemingly overnight, Americans all became familiar with terminology such as “flattening the curve,” and “social distancing.” As shutdowns and mask mandates swept across the nation, the country braced for a long and uncertain fight.
Information about the virus, preventative measures and protocols flooded social media platforms. With countless sources reporting information on a novel strain of a virus, many of the articles, tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram live videos seemed to conflict. There was an abundance of good information out there to be read and understood, but there was also a lot of harmful misinformation.
For C&IS assistant professor Dr. Jiyoung Lee (journalism and creative media), there has never been a clearer need for her research. Primarily, her research areas include emerging media (such as social media or interactive media) and the way these media affect the way the public understands health misinformation or misinformation in general.
“I have particularly noted that whenever we faced this pandemic and other risky situation, we feel anxiety and are so uncertain,” said Lee. “And I have realized this kind of fear and anxiety actually leads us to believe the unverified information.”
According to Lee, people believe what they want to believe as a way of managing the anxiety, uncertainty or perception of risk they are feeling in a moment of crisis. And readily available information on social media can hurt—rather than help—a crisis situation as it evolves.
“Social media was designed to help people connect with each other, but users can definitely just be exposed to information that they want to see,” said Lee. “Probably because filtering algorithms oftentimes just show the information users have an interest in seeing, and social media allows people to connect only with the people they want to connect with.”
As a quantitative scholar, Lee uses online surveys and experiments as well as compensation analyses to study Facebook and Twitter posts. Lee’s passion and curiosity for this research area are driven by her interest in emotions and risk perception. Concerning emotions, one observation Lee has made about the ongoing pandemic situation is the way that it is causing many to react angrily. A current study of hers focuses on whether or not the anger people feel about a situation makes the more vulnerable to believing misinformation.
Another emotional issue seen during the pandemic is the effect that the large availability of information from different sources has on social media users. According to Lee, vast amounts of sources and articles leave many feeling exhausted from “information overload,” regardless of whether or not the information they are consuming is accurate. And this can hinder whether or not they seek out additional information.
“If people feel that they do not have the capacity to process more information, they don’t want to seek out new information. Then they just think about the situation based on the information they already have,” said Lee. “The most important thing to avoid right now is being a passive audience—even if they are exhausted and afraid. I encourage people to seek out information with greater force and double-check everything.”
As the coronavirus pandemic continues on, understanding how to find accurate information and avoid information overload is vitally important. To see some helpful tips from Dr. Jiyoung Lee, check out our video below. For more information on Lee’s research, you can check out her website here.
The College of Communication and Information Sciences’ faculty and students at The University of Alabama conduct cutting-edge research that creates knowledge and provides solutions to global issues across the full communication and information spectrum. To learn more about the College’s research initiatives, visit cis.ua.edu/research.